The Heisman has really changed in the past 16 years. Not long ago the only players who seemed eligible for the award were Seniors. Then slowly juniors were allowed. Then a sophomore won and the house of cards just started falling. We’ve seen all sorts of players win; flashy players, work horses, NFL stars, and NFL busts.
It also used to be that if you were in the Heisman race, you immediately went into the draft. That’s so far from the truth now. Two of the top three vote getters in 2016, Christian McCaffrey and Deshaun Watson, will both be back next year to make another run at the trophy.
We ranked the past 16 Heisman winners based on their college careers. We did not take into account what they have (or have not) accomplished post graduation.
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16 Eric Crouch - 2001
Crouch never even made it into an NFL game. It’s incredible how a guy could be so good in college, and so irrelevant elsewhere. The Nebraska native was dynamic for the Cornhuskers in his four years on the team. It was different than what college football was used to at the time as Crouch was one of the early running QBs, carrying the ball more often than throwing it every year besides his first season. He ran for more than 15 touchdowns for three straight years. His Heisman year was the best of his career; he threw for 1,510 yard and ran for 1,115 more. He had his highest completion percentage of his career, though he also threw more interceptions than touchdowns. Crouch barely won his Heisman award, squeaking by a combination of Rex Grossman and Joey Harrington in what may have been the most average group of quarterbacks to ever compete for the prize.
15 Mark Ingram - 2009
For the most part, the Heisman is an award dominated by quarterbacks. It’s also generally dominated by seniors and juniors. Mark Ingram was a sophomore running back in 2009 when he won the Heisman. 2009 was a tough year for Heisman voters. Even though the top 3 vote getters from the previous Heisman race returned (for the first time), there were not a ton of good options as Alabama rolled over literally every opponent. Voters hands were almost forced to pick the best player for the best team, and that was Mark Ingram. The stats back it up as Ingram ran for over 1500 yards and scored 18 total touchdowns during the season. This was the tightest Heisman race ever with Toby Gerhart falling 28 points short of the Alabama running back, with Colt McCoy not far behind. On a side note, Ndamukong Suh had the highest finish of any defensive player since Charles Woodson won the award in 1997.
14 Derrick Henry - 2015
While this Heisman was a very close race with Christian McCaffery and Deshaun Watson, both putting together stellar seasons, Henry truly did rise to the top. Besides leading Alabama to the number 1 ranking and another national championship, Derrick Henry almost ran for 2000 yards and scored 23 touchdowns. While so many of the previous winners were high profile quarterbacks, Henry is a running back who just worked hard, kept his head down, and won games for the best team. He was drafted in the most recent NFL draft by Marcus Mariota’s Titans, so we may see some great things in store for him.
13 Jason White - 2003
Jason White really only had two years of football experience, but wow did he play well. There is some thought that he got bonus votes over Larry Fitzgerald based on being from Oklahoma and for being a quarterback, but nothing was ever proven and White deserved to win. During the 2003 season, White tallied 3,846 yards, 40 touchdowns, and achieved a passer rating of 158.1. If he didn’t share a backfield with a guy named Adrian Peterson, he may have had a chance to win the next year’s Heisman, but they split votes.
Jason White has had an unusual life after college. Unlike Carson Palmer, who won the trophy a year before and Leinart who won the year after, White was not a first round draft pick. He wasn’t even a second round pick, or a third. He went completely undrafted and became just the second Heisman winner to opt not to play in the NFL. He has been on record about the damage that playing football has done to his body (even in college).
12 Troy Smith - 2006
When Troy Smith was up for the Heisman award, no one else was even in the conversation to win. He demolished the competition, taking 91% of all the first place votes. We know what you’re thinking, was he really all that dominant? The answer is a firm yes. Smith led the Buckeyes to a nearly perfect season; his only loss was to Urban Meyer’s Florida team in the National Championship game. If you take out his horrendous championship performance (which occurred after voting), Troy had a passer rating of 167.8 and threw for 30 touchdowns and only 5 interceptions. He was also a fairly dynamic runner, creating 2,740 yards of total offense from the QB position for the Buckeyes. His size and play in the championship game were major factors in Smith falling to the 5th round of the 2007 NFL draft, but he was able to put together a solid career and was even given a chance to start during his time in San Francisco. The man will forever be a legend for Ohio State fans.
11 Robert Griffin - 2011
Before RG3 was the franchise villain for Washington, he was the greatest Baylor athlete ever. The team around Griffin wasn’t the greatest and there was only so much he could do to will his team to victory, and they still ended up #13 in the standings. RG3 had over 4500 yards of total offense and had a completion percentage of 72%. It was a close race with Andrew Luck and Trent Richardson both having monster years, but the mix of Robert’s charisma and his playmaking ability was just too much for the voters and he led every region (except the far west) in first place votes. His year was so good that Washington traded their future to St. Louis for him. When he was being recruited, very few teams were interested in him at the Quarterback position, and he proved them all wrong putting together a great career and being the most dynamic player in college football when he could get on the field.
10 Jameis Winston - 2013
Winston is the youngest player to ever win a Heisman award. The Florida State QB was so talented that the Texas Rangers drafted him to play in the MLB while he played at school. He finished his two-year career with a record of 26-1 as a starter, throwing for 7,964 yards and 65 touchdowns. The 2013 season, when he won the Heisman, Jameis led his Seminoles to an undefeated season, taking down Auburn in the championship game, dethroning the SEC from their run of champions that had been going on since 2006. He holds the record for average yards per play with 9.42 and scored 42 total touchdowns. After winning the award, Jameis found himself in the middle of a number of scandals and decided to jump to the NFL as soon as he could. He was taken number 1 overall by Tampa Bay and looks to be a solid NFL quarterbacks for a long time.
9 Sam Bradford - 2008
Sam Bradford had one injury free season at Oklahoma and he made the most of it. The 2009 Heisman race was arguably the greatest ever with Bradford, Colt McCoy, and Tim Tebow all in a dead heat to win the award. When all the dust cleared it was Bradford with the trophy. At the time, Bradford’s 53 combined touchdowns were the most by a Heisman trophy winner. To close out the season, Bradford led the Sooners to 5 straight weeks scoring 60 points or more, before meeting Tim Tebow and his Florida Gators in the Championship game. The next year Bradford destroyed his knee after playing 3 games and would go on to be the number 1 overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft. Bradford truly was a special QB in college, but he just could not stay on the field for the Rams, and they eventually had to dump him. He’s been in the headlines a lot recently and it seems that much of the talent that Sam once had may have been left in Oklahoma.
8 Johnny Manziel - 2012
Before all the partying, and the Vegas trips, and TMZ reports, Johnny Football was going to be the best Quarterback of all time. His 2013 season was one of the most iconic in football history. Manziel threw for 3,419 yards and 24 touchdowns while adding 1,181 yards with 19 scores on the ground. The key moment for his Heisman campaign came on November 10th when his Aggies went to Alabama to play the number 1 team in the country. Manziel fought hard and came out of Tuscaloosa with a huge win, something few others could claim to have done. That game has been dissected by every game analyst and will continue to be for years to come. After his Heisman year, so much went wrong in Manziel’s career. It soon became apparent that he enjoyed the Football lifestyle well more than he cared about playing the actual game. Though many are hoping the kid can still put his life together, the story of Johnny Football looks to be done, but fans can always point to his amazing 2012 season.
7 Marcus Mariota - 2014
Mariota put together one of the most consistent college careers of any Heisman winner. Every year he started, he added an additional 1000 yards to his passing totals, throwing for 4454 in his Heisman year and his 53 total touchdowns tied Sam Bradford for the most in Heisman history. He never had a year where he threw more than 6 picks, and never had less than 30 touchdown throws. Not to mention he was lightning fast and could absolutely dismantle teams with his legs. He holds the Pac 12 career record for Passing Efficiency Rating with 171.8. His Heisman year he led his team to the Championship game after beating Jameis Winston and the Seminoles in the brand new BCS playoffs. He was well ahead of all the competition in Heisman voting, garnering far more votes than either Melvin Gordon and Amari Cooper. Mariota had one of the greatest Heisman seasons to top off one of the most underrated careers of all time.
6 Chris Weinke - 2000
Chris Weinke never really made much of an impression in the NFL. He was a fourth round draft pick by the Carolina Panthers and played behind Jake Delhomme and went 5 years between starts while serving primarily as a backup, but he did get to go to a Super Bowl with the team, which is more than most other Heisman winners can say.
Weinke had a not-so-typical path to the Heisman. He enrolled at Florida State when he was 25-years-old after playing professional baseball from 1990 until 1996. Bowden initially recruited Weinke in 1989 to play for the Semimoles alongside another Heisman winner, Charlie Ward. Once Weinke officially quit baseball, Bowden offered him a scholarship to play QB for the team. His years starting were some of the best that college football has ever seen. In his sophomore year, he had the Seminoles at a 9-1 record and a number 2 national ranking, before a neck injury ended his season. He didn’t lose a game in his junior year, leading the team to their first ever undefeated season and their second national championship. However, he was not in consideration for the Heisman that year. Weinke put together a special senior season, throwing for 33 touchdowns and putting up a 163.09 passer rating. He took his team to a second straight national title game, but they were beat by Oklahoma. When he received the Heisman in 2000, Weinke became the oldest player to win the award at 28 years old.
5 Matt Leinart - 2004
Leinart may not have won the award if Adrian Peterson and Jason White didn’t split votes with each other, but that’s not to say the guy didn’t earn it. In fact he completely destroyed Oklahoma, throwing for 5 touchdowns, in the championship game to prove that he was the true Heisman winner. Leinart led his Trojans to an undefeated season and a number 1 overall ranking in the polls. He didn’t have a single game with multiple interceptions and threw for multiple touchdowns in all but 2 games. By the end of the season Matt had 33 touchdowns and threw only 6 picks. It was the Leinart put together an arguably more impressive junior year throwing for more yards and having a higher passer rating, but lost out on winning a second trophy to his running back, Reggie Bush. Leinart could never replicate his college potential in the NFL and is widely considered a major bust as the Cardinals took him tenth overall and he was never able to handle the starting job. His ineffectiveness in the Pros should not be confused with the greatness from college as he was one of the best collegiate QBs ever.
4 Carson Palmer - 2002
Carson Palmer’s time at USC was one of the most spectacular four seasons of any college player. He threw for nearly 3000 yards his sophomore and junior season and led the Pac-12 in complete passes both seasons, and then absolutely exploded in his senior year. He upped his pass completion percentage to 63.2% and threw for almost 4000 yards, falling less than 60 yards away from the achievement. Most impressive was his heightened touchdown rate, throwing for 33, compared to 16 and 13 the previous two years. Throughout Palmer’s senior season, he just embarrassed opponents on his way to an MVP in the Orange Bowl and leading the Trojans to a number 4 ranking. He proved himself not only the best QB in college football, but easily the best player earning the number 1 overall pick in the NFL draft, the first Heisman winner to go first since Vinny Testaverde was taken in 1986. He continues his strong play in the NFL and most recently has been leading the Cardinals into playoffs the past two years, after having some stellar seasons in Cincinnati.
3 Reggie Bush - 2005
Apparently Bush never won the Heisman… But we all don’t really believe that. After it came to light that Bush had taken payments to play for USC, the award was stripped from him and he had to settle with the fact that he would never be in those silly commercials ever again. While his NFL career never really took off, and he made more headlines by getting injured than he ever did by actually playing, Reggie Bush sure was something special in college. To describe the man, who better to quote than his ex coach Pete Carroll, who once said “He's such a special player, a once-in-a-lifetime talent. He's a game-changer, with his speed, instincts, vision and competitiveness. He's just so much fun to watch.” He was the kind of player who could do anything with the ball in his hands. Break tackles? Sure. Leap defenders? Any time. Catch, run, or even throw? If he needed to. Reggie Bush ran away with the Heisman trophy, beating out Vince Young and Matt Leinart, both of who were incredibly talented quarterbacks who led their teams to the championship games. Bush was just that much better than them - maybe better than anyone who played the game.
2 Cam Newton - 2010
Cam Newton literally played for 1 year in the NCAA, and he won everything he could. His only year at Auburn he took home the Heisman and a national championship trophy. Then he rode off into the sunset to be the Number 1 overall pick by the Panthers. He was absolutely dazzling that year leading the Tigers to an undefeated season. He threw for 2500 yards and ran for 1400, and scored a combined 49 touchdowns. His journey was a bit rough as he played for two other schools, including behind Tebow, before he found his way to Auburn. Few players have had as much success as Newton in four year of college. It’s a story unlike anything that will ever be seen again.
1 Tim Tebow - 2007
Tim Tebow is arguably the best college football player of all time. Emphasis on the word college. His time at Florida will forever be known as one of the best careers the game has ever seen. He was an active part of their championship team as a freshman in 2007, and then followed that up by being the first sophomore to win a Heisman, and then he won a second championship the year after that. He made a significant impact in the Heisman race each of his three starting years for the Gators. During the 2008 season, the year he won the Heisman, Tebow threw for 3286 yards and ran for 895 more. There was no one like Tebow before and defenses could not figure out how to stop someone his size that could run so fast and deliver the ball with such efficiency. He terrorized college teams for three years straight and earned a spot as a first round QB on reputation alone. Did his game translate to the NFL? No, not at any point in time. But his college career was so incredible that he changed the way we will forever look at the sport. He deserved more accolade than he even received, but they couldn’t just make up awards for the kid and he had already won everything else.
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